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Wheaton responds to mass shooting in Aurora


By Bethany Peterson and Tori Dobleske

On Friday afternoon, Feb. 15, a gunman entered Henry Pratt Company in Aurora, Ill. and opened fire, killing five employees and wounding six others. Police later confirmed the gunman as Gary Martin, age 45, who had been recently fired from his position at the manufacturing company located just 30 minutes from Wheaton. Community members, including Wheaton students, faculty and staff, rushed to respond in the midst of the tragedy.

Following the day of the shooting, one of the pastors of HighPoint Church in North Aurora contacted Executive Director of the Humanitarian and Disaster Institute (HDI) at Wheaton College, Jamie Aten, to provide trauma resources for the congregation and assist in leading a prayer vigil on Saturday. According to Aten, “these types of gatherings are hugely important because [they] help to remind survivors that they are not alone in their suffering and pain. They can help them be able to make meaning out of what has occurred.”

Aten is an expert in how disasters impact communities, especially in relation to faith. The HDI presented the first in-depth empirical study focusing on the impact of faith on the aftermath of mass shootings to the American Psychological Association in 2016. They found that when people felt spiritually supported by church congregations and leaderships they experienced lower levels of depression and trauma following these kinds of incidents.

Junior Mackenzie Kennedy, an Aurora native, said that “It was such a weird experience when I was first told about [the shooting] — when you hear about these horrific events and tragedies, they are almost hard to comprehend. You can sympathize and feel empathy for the community because you know of the pain they cause, but I don’t quite think you can truly feel the weight of that pain unless you were there or have a connection.”

According to Aten, traumatic events like mass shootings don’t just impact people at the scene, but also the entire community. He said that the first response is usually shock and disbelief, followed by mourning and grief, a feeling of being unsafe within one’s own community and secondary trauma, depression and anxiety.

The entire shooting on Friday lasted roughly 90 minutes. Early shots were reported by employees of Henry Pratt Co. at 1:24 p.m. and first officers arrived on the scene within four minutes, according to police reports. Martin was shot and killed during a shootout with Aurora police after taking refuge in the warehouse after the initial shootings. Other agencies including the FBI were also dispatched to Aurora. Local schools went into lockdown until 4 p.m.

The five employees killed were later identified by police as Clayton Parks, a human resource manager at Henry Pratt; Trevor Wehner, a human resource intern and a student at Northern Illinois University; Russell Beyer, a mold operator; Vicente Juarez, a stock room attendant and fork lift operator; and Josh Pinkard, a plant manager.

A city-wide vigil hosted by the Aurora Prayer Coalition and local churches was held at the manufacturing plant on Sunday. Over 1,700 people attended the gathering, even as freezing rain fell on the area, according to USA Today.

Aten was in attendance at the vigil. He said one pastor called on the community to move towards healing in a nonviolent way, despite the flagrantly violent act. Though it is more difficult to put into action, Aten said that bringing people together in this way “can help to provide guidance for a community about how we move forward in the way that can start that healing and recovery process.”

Aten said healing will take time. “Once the media leaves and the news coverage stops, I’ve seen many experiences where communities affected by mass shootings report feeling like [they’ve] been forgotten by others outside of [their] own community,” he said. “I think it’s also important that we wait and listen to the city of Aurora for them to tell us when they need help and to be there when they ask for it.”

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